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How do you make people earthquake-resistant?

Earthquake issues discussed during the UG ‘The Meaning of Wellbeing’ symposium
08 February 2019
Restoration work being carried out on the Doopsgezinde church in Middelstum
Restoration work being carried out on the Doopsgezinde church in Middelstum (Municipality of Loppersum) Photo ANP/Jerry Lampen

How should you counsel people who are questioning their purpose in life in areas affected by earthquakes in Groningen and Drenthe? This was one of the key questions raised during the symposium, ‘The Meaning of Wellbeing’, held at the end of 2018. The symposium marked the launch of the University of Groningen’s Centre for Religion, Health and Wellbeing. Work at the Centre revolves around the links between people’s mental and physical wellbeing and their sense of fulfilment, their convictions, religion and culture. The area affected by earthquakes is one of the research areas.

Text Elske Kroondijk, UG Communication Office

To make life worth living, you don’t just need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, but also something to look forward to. You need a sense of purpose and fulfilment from the things that you do and see. This can be very difficult for people living in the areas affected by earthquakes. Their daily reality is reminiscent of a surreal circus, with acts that never fail to amaze. Why has this process become so gridlocked? Why is no progress being made? Nobody understands it. Finding a sense of purpose means finding your niche in this sobering reality.

People have been rocked to the core

Finding a sense of purpose has become a lifeline for many people in the area. Inspections must be carried out on 15,000 homes, so assuming an average of two people per household, approx. 30,000 people are living in uncertainty about their home. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone is in immediate need of psychological help. Sociological research shows that 10,000 people do not consider themselves to be ‘ill’: in other words, they are not seeing their GP. However, they do admit to sleeping badly. Although they are suffering, they do not consider themselves to be victims or patients, so they do not receive help.

Spiritual counsellor Melissa Dales, who works in the earthquake area, recognizes this. According to her, the situation is further complicated by the diversity of the problems. Some houses are being demolished while neighbouring houses show no signs of damage, and just around the corner, people are fighting to even have the damage acknowledged. Residents are finding it hard to cope and many of them are becoming socially isolated. There are numerous islands of individual damage claims, being made by residents who feel that they have been left to fend for themselves. In addition, the sheer time that it is taking to resolve the problems is wearing people down. Residents have been living with uncertainty for far too long, with no real prospect of improvement.

Chronic disaster

Although the term may initially seem exaggerated, it would be fair to refer to the earthquake problem as a long-term chronic ‘disaster’. Many parties, including NAM (the Dutch oil company), are reluctant to speak of a ‘disaster’; they prefer to play it down. But to help those who trying to come to terms with what has happened, it is important to acknowledge the size and extent of the facts. To acknowledge the unprecedented task we are facing; the biggest of its kind in the world. And to speak in terms of a disaster. Not an acute disaster, but a long-term, silent disaster.

In some ways, the psychological support offered to victims of these earthquakes is similar to the help given to people caught up in other major Dutch disasters, such as the MH17 crash and the fireworks disaster in Enschede. It is striking that spiritual counsellors in disaster areas can have very different ideas about what people need. Studies of spiritual counsellors in the earthquake area have been used to monitor people’s actual needs, in order to gain a greater understanding of what constitutes good spiritual care in disaster situations.

Making people ‘earthquake-resistant’

The core task of a spiritual counsellor in this process is to establish someone’s burden in terms of their level of endurance: what else is going on in someone’s life? Which core values in life have been undermined? Can someone cope? Is there a way of making oneself more ‘earthquake-resistant’? Spiritual counsellors use metaphors, pictures and stories to help people to put their situation into words and possibly discover new ways of looking at it.

Spiritual counsellors are not the only ones who can help people search for a sense of purpose. At present, the purpose aspect is also being considered as a subject for communication training courses given by the EPI knowledge centre for people working in the earthquake area. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a builder or a GP – if having a sense of purpose is on your radar, you’ll be more receptive to the situation facing residents and in a better position to help them. The round-table meeting between residents, researchers and spiritual professionals at the symposium.

Round-table meeting between residents, researchers and spiritual professionals
The round-table meeting between residents, researchers and spiritual professionals at the symposium

‘I frame my activism as a game’

During the symposium, one resident explained how she assigns a sense of meaning to the roller-coaster of new experiences she is undergoing due to the gas drilling. She seeks wisdom from ancient philosophers, such as Seneca. He wrote: ‘Do not let things that you cannot control, control you.’ She shares this wisdom in her job as a school teacher in the affected area, much to the appreciation of her pupils. She also shares her experiences in blogs for Vereniging Eigen Huis.

This resident also notices that she sometimes ‘creates’ her own sense of purpose. She says that labelling her activism in the fight against NAM as a hobby or a game, for example, helps her to stay sane. No matter how serious things get, her sense of humour always enables her to put this absurd situation into perspective. For example, when the dykes were badly damaged by the earthquakes, she asked the NAM for a lifeboat. She knew her request was ridiculous and didn’t stand a chance, but she sent it in anyway. Why? ‘Because doing something like this makes me (and other people) happy.’ So what happened about the lifeboat? The NAM gave her permission to buy one, but told her to charge the water board.

Launch of Centre for Religion, Health and Wellbeing

People are becoming more aware of the importance of good mental health. As from 2019, healthcare insurance will not only cover the costs of spiritual counselling for people in hospitals, prisons and nursing homes, but also for people who need this counselling and live at home, such as people in the areas affected by earthquakes. The Centre for Religion, Health and Wellbeing is trying to find the best way to support this specific group in their search for a sense of purpose. Staff at the Centre include religious scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, theologians and philosophers, who work alongside social partners such as the mental health services, hospitals, religious communities, welfare organizations and the government. The Centre is attached to the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health at the University of Groningen.

Last modified:08 February 2019 1.10 p.m.
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